Sunday, November 29, 2015

This MNF matchup a tough sell

It will be very interesting to see how ESPN sells the Monday Night Football game this week to its discriminating national television audience.

It features arguably two of the worst teams in the National Football League in a division battle that could conceivably – and accurately – be called “The Battle for the Basement in the AFC North.”

Now don’t count on the TV monolith selling it that way. That’s why it will be interesting to see just what spin it gives a game that features two teams going absolutely nowhere fast.

In a pairing the national sports network probably regrets scheduling, the 2-8 Cleveland Browns welcome the 3-7 Baltimore Ravens in a game that means nothing in terms of a possible post-season appearance.

The Ravens are in the midst of their worst season since 2007, when they finished 5-11 and Brian Billick’s firing paved the way for John Harbaugh, whose eight-year coaching reign has never produced a losing season.

In Harbaugh’s first seven seasons, the Ravens were 72-40, recording five double-digit victory seasons, and missed the playoffs just once. They made it to the AFC Championship game thrice and won the 2013 Super Bowl.

During that same seven-season period, the Browns were 34-78, recording six double-digit losing seasons, missed the playoffs every year and went through five coaches.

The likelihood of the Ravens coming back and finishing the season strong has been virtually eliminated by crippling injuries. They enter the game with their best quarterback (Joe Flacco), best running back  (Justin Forsett), best wide receiver (Steve Smith) and best pass rusher (Terrell Suggs) done for the 2015 season.

The Browns, on the other hand, have not been crippled as much by injuries. They have been crippled by bad football and top management that can be best described as dysfunctional. They are a speeding train headed for yet another disastrous finish.

Unfortunately for ESPN, the network does not have the luxury NBC enjoys for its Sunday night games. Under the flexible scheduling rules adopted in 2006 and amended in 2014, only scheduled Sunday afternoon games in weeks 5-17 (two games between weeks 5 and 10) can be moved to Sunday night to insure quality matchups.

Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden hopefully will be up to the challenge to make this one sound interesting to an audience that could prove to be the MNF’s smallest of the season. Only a die-hard football fan would want to tune in.

Gruden, who grew up down the road from Cleveland in Sandusky and was a Browns fan when being a Browns fan gave one a prideful feeling, probably was looking forward to the game, especially after Browns coach Mike Pettine announced during the bye week that Johnny Manziel would start the final six games of the season.

Gruden, apparently concerned Manziel needed some tutoring after a disastrous rookie season, worked with the Cleveland quarterback for a few days a week or so before training camp last July, focusing on mechanics and film study.

And in his QB Camp feature with Manziel prior to being drafted by the Browns last year, the Super Bowl winning coach liked what he saw and indicated he wouldn’t mind coaching the former Heisman Trophy winner.

So it is understandable that Gruden had to be disappointed when Manziel had another one of his Johnny Being Johnny episodes during the bye week that angered his coach, dropped him to third-team quarterback and made him merely a spectator for this game.

There is no real positive angle Tirico and Gruden can hone in on. Their best bet is to be brutally honest and admit this might be the worst MNF pairing since . . . well, since no one can remember.

The closest positive aspect of the game they can point to is Baltimore’s 2-1 record in the last three games, but the Ravens will be without Flacco, who blew out two knee ligaments in a victory over St Louis last Sunday.

Flacco, who is 13-2 against the Browns, had started every game since being drafted in 2008. His 122-game starting streak is the fifth-longest in league history behind Brett Favre, the Manning brothers and Philip Rivers.

This will be the Browns’ first appearance in the Monday night spotlight since falling, 16-0, to the Ravens in 2009. They are 15-14 since they and the New York Jets helped launch MNF back on Sept. 21, 1970 at the old Stadium.

The Browns, who enter the game having lost five games in a row and 13 of their last 15, have a chance to sweep the season series for the first time since 2007. Travis Coons’ 32-yard field goal halfway through overtime lifted the Browns to a 33-30 victory in week five in Baltimore.

The Ravens, despite all the injuries, have been competitive all season, their record notwithstanding. They have lost six of their seven games by a total of 24 points and won three by a total of nine points. The lone exception was an eight-point loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Matt Schaub, signed as a free agent by the Ravens last spring, takes over the Baltimore offense. The 12-year veteran hasn’t started a game since his final season with Houston in 2013 and threw just five passes last season with Oakland.

Conventional thinking would lead one to believe the Browns will attempt to make life miserable for Schaub upon his return by unleashing a blitz package that doesn’t end until the game is over, especially with a Cleveland secondary wobbling after Joe Haden and Donte Whitner were injured.

Before Flacco went down, the Ravens were a predominantly passing team, throwing the ball nearly two-thirds of the time. Look for a change in offensive philosophy against the Browns with a larger emphasis on the ground game and time of possession.

Rookie Javorius (Buck) Allen took at running back over after Forsett suffered a broken arm last week and played well, gaining 115 yards (67 on the ground and 48 through the air) on 27 touches. He ran for 58 yards on just eight carries in the first Cleveland game. The Ravens’ biggest threats through the air are tight end Crockett Gillmore and wide receiver Kamar Aiken.

One thing is certain: There will not be a repeat of the first game when the clubs combined for 63 points. Nor will there be a replication of Josh McCown’s amazing performance.

In that one, you’ll recall, McCown completed 36 of 51 passes for 457 yards (the club had 505 total yards) and two touchdowns with tight end Gary Barnidge catching 10 balls for 139 yards and a score.

With two weeks off to prepare for their national appearance, it is hoped by many in Browns Nation that their favorite team has also finally found a running game, having generated just 205 yards on the ground in the last four games. In fact, they have rushed for more than 100 yards in a game just four times with a season-high of 116.

Conversely, the Cleveland defense has permitted more than 100 yards on the ground to 10 of their 12 opponents with a season high of 181 yards, ironically, in the Baltimore victory earlier.

Monday night, there will be no such numbers as the teams flail for the better part of 60 minutes and show the nation why they bring up the rear of the AFC North. It will be a classic battle of ineptitude featuring numerous turnovers and punters Sam Koch and Andy Lee in the spotlight.

McCown will throw two interceptions, lose a fumble and be sacked five times; Schaub matches the two picks, but winds up with a clean uniform and connects with Gillmore for the team’s lone touchdown; and Allen runs for 100 yards, but loses two fumbles as the Ravens avoid the sweep and bury the Browns deeper in the cellar. Make it:

Ravens 19, Browns 6

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